Language, Learning and Young People
by Barbara N. Fish, Member West Virginia Board of Education

December 13, 2001

Parlez-vous franšais? Habla usted espa˝ol? Sprechen sie deutsch? If you can translate these expressions, then you are in the minority of Americans who can function in another language. The recent findings of the 2000 U.S. Census Bureau indicate that only 2.2% of West Virginians ages five and older can speak a language other than English. Nationally, about 17.6% of the population speaks a language other than English. This statistic gives West Virginia the unfortunate ranking of last in the nation.  

Ever since the attacks of September 11, it has become woefully even more apparent to the U.S. government that we face a critical shortage of foreign language experts. The FBI had issued an urgent appeal for citizens who could speak Arabic and Farsi to assist with its intelligence gathering following the terrorist attacks. Few answered the call.  

So what is the solution to this national problem? The answer may lie within the K-12 public education system. Compared to other countries, U.S. schools have a weak language policy. Most education systems view the teaching of foreign languages much the same way it views instruction in fine arts: as a add-on.  

The West Virginia Board of Education has created a unique policy environment that encourages colleges and universities to prepare foreign language teachers. Through Policy 5100: Approval of Educational Personnel Programs, six of the eight state institutions that prepare foreign language teachers have amended their programs to begin offering K-12 certification, especially in Spanish.  

As a member of the state Board of Education, I am encouraged that we are working toward a stronger statewide foreign language program. By fall 2002, every middle school in the state will be required to offer a foreign language in grades seven and eight. In addition, last year we received a Foreign Language Assistance Program grant to work with elementary teachers to create a deeper awareness of the benefits of teaching foreign language. And in February 2002, the West Virginia Department of Education will host a conference designed to show teachers and administrators how they can implement elementary foreign language programs in their schools and counties.  

Over the past several years, a tremendous amount of research has been devoted to the teaching of foreign languages as it relates to brain development and the way young people learn. Studies show that students who have early language instruction reap many benefits including improved overall school performance, superior problem-solving skills, and a deeper understanding of their own and other cultures. Research also indicates that students of foreign languages score statistically higher on standardized tests. Indeed, one often-cited study showed that students who had four or more years of foreign language study had higher verbal scores on the SAT, the college entrance exam. The evidence is clear: the study of foreign language gives students tremendous advantages.  

How can we as parents and concerned West Virginians encourage the study of foreign languages? First by becoming an advocate for language learning. Demonstrate to children that learning a second language is valuable. Provide them with books, tapes and other materials in another language. Take them to cultural events that feature aspects of another country. Explore international exchange programs that give young people an opportunity to experience a different culture firsthand. If your local school does not offer a foreign language program, talk to the principal about establishing one.  

Learning a foreign language gives young people so many advantages in their early years. But it also has other far-reaching benefits. Knowing a second language gives them a competitive edge with job opportunities and career advancement. But moreover, by producing Americans who are fluent in other languages, our country can remain competitive and strong economically, politically and globally.